Photo: Matt Austin
When you become a parent, you set out to be the best you can be, to love your child unconditionally and to give them the world. Sometimes, due to circumstances, ill health or even choice, it doesn’t happen and it is the child that suffers. This is when angels appear, such as in the shape of Wendy Hart, a foster mum, who opens her heart and her home to children in times of crisis.
Having had her first child at 20 years old, Wendy decided at 22 that fostering might be for her. A decision that not all 20-somethings would choose but having worked with children previously it felt like a natural progression. At her home in Plymouth, with baby bouncers and toys all around us, Wendy tells me how it all started: “I knew after having had my son that I didn’t want to go back work so initially I thought about childminding but after chatting with a support worker, who suggested I might enjoy fostering, I started to read up on it. I was hooked straight away, so I talked my then husband into being a foster carer too and never looked back.”
That was in 1991 and since then Wendy has gone on to have three more of her own children and has fostered over 60.
Her own are now 27, 25, 12 and 11 years old and she has carried on fostering throughout, enduring a marriage break-up, fostering on her own for a while and then with a new partner who knew from the start that this was so important to Wendy: “He knew when he met me that I wasn’t going to give up so if he wanted to be with me then he had to become a foster carer too. So, he went through the assessment and training and joined me.”
Children are clearly a big part of Wendy’s life but how has this affected her own? Wendy admits that she does worry they have missed out on her time and attention: “I have asked if they felt jealous but they say not and actually feel they get a lot out of the fostering. They have learnt from an early age the damage that alcohol and drugs can do and the effect on families. I am so proud of them because whenever a new child enters the house they will show them all around the house and tell them the house rules, making them feel so welcome.”
I am totally in awe of, not just how tidy Wendy’s house is despite having up to four or five children in the house at any one time, but her complete willingness to open herself up and get involved with every child that enters her home.
It isn’t easy though as Wendy tells me: “You can’t be detached otherwise you will be doing the child a disservice; you have to invest in them emotionally so that they can thrive in your care. I know they are not mine and I have no intention of keeping them, although there are always tears when they go.
“People often ask if I am tempted to keep the children that pass through but that is not what I enjoy doing. I enjoy having them and helping to deal with being in care; to help them thrive and then see them move on either back to family or adoption.”
It’s clear, talking to Wendy, that being a foster carer is not a job, it is a vocation.
There is an allowance but it is not a wage and if you worked it out on an hourly rate, added in buying all clothes and food etc and providing a warm home; you would be on about 20p an hour!
Wendy is adamant that to be a good foster carer you have to be patient: “Some children are wearing but it is never their fault. It’s the system and the courts that can frustrate you more.” An open mind and being non-judgmental is also essential: “My heart does often go out to the parents that have had a child taken away because sometimes when you find out the parents’ story you realise that they have had an awful life too and what has brought them to this point isn’t always their fault.”
A passion for shopping is also a must: “Sometimes there is an emergency and you have a child arriving in the middle night so it is brilliant that some shops are open 24/7 because often the child will arrive with nothing but the clothes they are stood in. I just dash to the shops and get what I need day or night; you have to like shopping if you are going to foster!”
Wendy is a mum who we would all like to have and any child that finds themselves in her care can, despite the circumstances, consider themselves lucky but Wendy is also grateful to her own parents who offer never ending support to her: “My parents are Nanny and Granddad to all of the children and often babysit. If we’re having a party they all come and all have presents at Christmas and for birthdays. Whether they stay overnight or stay ten years they are always part of my family.”
Who inspires Wendy?
“Betty and Kay, two ladies who, when they first met me, thought I was a foster child! When I first started I went to a support group meeting with other carers and there were Betty and Kay who had been fostering for about ten years.
“I walked in and they said ‘Oh I didn’t realise we had a foster child coming in to tell us all about their experience’. They told me, years later, they were so shocked that I was so young.
“They are still fostering into their seventies and they are an inspiration to me. They do it for the right reasons and dedicated most of their lives to it and have always been there for me.”